Wide Awake in Scenes from the House Dream
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Wide Awake in Scenes from the House Dream

David Hoffos, Scenes From the House Dream: Circle Street, 2003.

It’s not every day that you are reminded that art, when at its best, is a complete and welcome interruption of the ordinary. It’s not every artist that, within the first few minutes, gifts you with a renewed sense of wonder for the mysterious and the unexpected.
The acutely fantastic exhibition by Lethbridge-based artist David Hoffos at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art is just this interruption—and the antidote to the juggernaut-esque experience that is December. Scenes From the House Dream is an invitation to stray down an unmarked, dimly lit side-street for a stark change of pace from your riled-up routine. There are only two weeks remaining in its three-month stint at the MOCCA, and it would simply be a loss to miss it.

David Hoffos, Scenes From the House Dream: C.P. Fail, 2008.

The gallery is dark and disorienting, and invokes those often-ignored warnings against dank alley forays. Small gilded frames set into the darkness act as your way-finding guide. It is within the first frame that you glimpse what this show offers—the chance to become like children once more, and look in upon small, imaginary worlds where unfamiliar things exist, and where stories that you can’t quite understand play out.
Using a combination of sometimes surprisingly low-tech elements—scale dioramas, CRT televisions, mirrors, and pre-recorded videos—Hoffos creates deeply detailed scenes that melt the digital into the physical. However, “low-tech” is not to imply simple. The execution is clearly meticulous and highly complex. Video clips of people walking, waiting, pacing, talking, and just passing through loop on carefully placed television screens, and are reflected by mirrors into the dollhouse- and model-train-like settings contained behind the frames. Images from behind the scenes can be viewed here, and a video compilation of the results is here.
The results are holographic narratives that inhabit these otherwise static and benign locations. The effect is the satisfaction of our childhood dream to have the tiny universes we create and imagine come to life. It is at once charming and alarming, quaint and disquieting.

David Hoffos, Scenes From the House Dream: Barnett Newman, 2004. Collection of Ken Bradley.

While some feel quite familiar—two teenagers killing time beneath an underpass, a woman pacing in an airport hotel room at night—others are foreign and cryptic. In Irwin Allen, unexplained activity plays out on an alien planet. In Treehouse, a man waits in a chair in an empty room perched in a tree.
Familiar or not, they are all darkly poetic. The scale and the visual effect render these stories something that you hold before you, small and contained, making you a kind of overseer, and yet you don’t have all of the pieces. You can’t see what happened before you arrived. You can’t interact. You can only silently wonder, and crane your neck to try to see what’s beyond the edges of the frame.

David Hoffos, Scenes From the House Dream: Winter Kitchen, 2007.

In the second element of the exhibition, the artist disturbs the pattern established by the first few works. As soon as you think you’ve figured out the show, Hoffos takes the projections out of the frames, and sends them out into your space. Life-size, indeterminate, confusing, and ultimately ghost-like, what seem to be living figures that just can’t be real are scattered along your path. The first, Absinthe Bar, is alarmingly intimidating, and even after you’ve passed by and figured out its magic, it continues to haunt the experience.
The entire experience puts you on edge. The darkness and the mystery are accompanied by strange sounds with no clear association. Rather than sensory deprivation, this is sensory substitution. Every input that you are accustomed to is swapped out for something unusual, and your faculties have entered a strange land. This state is part of the power of this show. It’s what allows you to really explore and marvel and look upon these worlds with the knowledge that you don’t know. It’s the recovery of a child-like approach to an experience, and it’s the perfect interruption to the everyday.
Scenes From the House Dream runs until Friday, December 31, 2010. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, but will be keeping special holiday hours starting on December 20.
Images courtesy of the artist.